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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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A nation says goodbye to Gay Byrne - the man who 'showed us to ourselves'

The funeral of Gay Byrne took place at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday.

Michael D Higgins at the funeral of broadcaster Gay Byrne.
Michael D Higgins at the funeral of broadcaster Gay Byrne.
Image: RollingNews.ie/PA/Pool

EVERYONE BROUGHT THEIR memories to the Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday for the funeral of Gay Byrne. 

And it wasn’t just the folk memory – that well-told story of Byrne, the quiet rebel who toppled the Catholic Church from a studio in Donnybrook.

Instead, among the hundreds who gathered yesterday morning on Marlborough Street to attend the late broadcaster’s funeral, many people recounted specific moments from the career of Gay Byrne that stayed with them all their lives. 

Standing just back from the Luas tracks, which trundled past every few minutes, they remembered quiet, private moments where Gay’s voice had seemed to speak only to them. 

One man outside the cathedral recounted in microscopic detail how Gay Byrne had once used his radio show to complain about people’s reactions to a flooded road on a rainy day in Howth. 

Another remembered how 25 years ago he’d tape record Gay Byrne’s radio show in his car so he never missed it. 

Others laughed about the guests. Not the famous moments replayed on TV and Twitter over the last week – no Boyzone or U2 or condom trains. 

Instead, one man in his 60s cherished the memories of the guests, exact names forgotten, who jousted and rowed and brought entertainment to the living rooms across the country.

Some of the people there today had met Gay Byrne, whether at outside broadcasts, the Rose of Tralee or in the Late Late Show audience. But many others hadn’t and now never would.

But all could pinpoint what the broadcaster meant to them. 

Inside the church

The night before, work had begun to rig the church up for the funeral of one of the country’s greatest ever broadcasters. 

“Cathedral closed to facilitate preparation for funeral of Mr Gay Byrne,” a sign read beside the door. 

This wasn’t the first time St Mary’s Pro Cathedral had formed the backdrop to an Irish funeral. In 1975, the great and good of Catholic, conservative Ireland gathered on the same spot to attend the funeral of Éamon De Valera. Nearly 50 years later, a very different figure was celebrated.  

gay-byrne-funeral Mourners gather outside the Pro Cathedral in Dublin. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The church was arranged as well as any studio, beaming the service to Irish people from across the world. 

Camera operators jostled with journalists, while those same faces who had peopled the Late Late Show audience on Tuesday night appeared again to pay their respects. 

On Friday morning, RTÉ’s Joe Duffy led a troupe of friends up the steps and into the church. 

A few minutes later, Miriam O’Callaghan was shepherded in alongside Marty Whelan, Ray D’arcy and Marty Morrissey. 

At 11.30am, one of the stewards whispered that the 800-seater church was “jammers now”, but still they poured in, the odd fan slipping in alongside Gay Byrne’s friends and colleagues. 

Ryan Tubridy was one of the few who stopped to talk with journalists. “It’s been a poignant and beautiful week,” he said. 

“What Irish people have done this week just reminds us, we’re just an extraordinary country and Gay saw that.”

As the Luas zipped past behind him, its bell rang. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” Tubridy said, quoting It’s a Wonderful Life. Gay, he said, has his wings now. 

And at a week when journalists, politicians and RTÉ bosses had all clashed over the licence fee and the future of the broadcaster, there was a feeling of détente on Marlborough Street. 

Behind the front rows, occupied by Gay’s family and President Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin stood feet away from Tubridy, Pat Kenny and RTÉ boss Dee Forbes. 

Outside, Senator David Norris jested with the crowd, while Bertie Ahern sat in the far corner of the church. 

But politics couldn’t be completely left at the door. Nor could the ironies of Gay Byrne’s own life be ignored – the gentle TV star whose shows were the scorn of the Catholic Church, but who remained religious to the end. 

It was a Fr Leonard Maloney in his homily who first addressed the paradox of Gay Byrne’s place in Irish life – a small reflection of how much ‘official Ireland’ has changed.  

gay-byrne-funeral Gay Byrne's daughter Suzy touches her father's coffin during his funeral service. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Gay often devoted large segments of his two-hour radio programme to reading extracts from the moving and often harrowing letters sent in by women from all over Ireland telling, perhaps for the first time ever, of sufferings and violations visited on them. He did this at a time when there was little space in the public realm for stories like these to be told. He let their voices be heard. He recognised their dignity and he validated their experience. 

Even Archbishop Diarmuid Martin allowed himself a joke at the Church’s expense, prompting laughter as he offered an open invitation to “any curious journalist to come to our archives and read the correspondence that arrived from concerned Catholics to my predecessors, and responses of my concerned predecessor, to some of the things that were written”.

Teacher

It was no accident that the gospel story on Friday was the Sermon on the Mount. Because Gay Byrne wasn’t a preacher or an evangelist, but instead someone who shepherded Ireland on the heady journey into the TV world. 

“Gay showed us to ourselves. And he had the unrivalled ability to reach out to vast audiences by speaking to each person individually,” as Bob Collins, the former director general of RTE, put it. 

But it was daughter Suzy, at the start of the Mass, who captured the essence of him best. 

Recalling the care hospital staff showed to her father during his final weeks and days, she said that to them, “he was a Dub and one of our own”.

And that was Gay Byrne. Not a politician. Nor a saint. Not even a radical. But a radio and TV man who saw the future – and brought Ireland with him on his journey. 

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